Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Eurovision Song Contest 2015 Quiz

"Eurovision is a genuinely terrifying experience. This handy Bluffer's '60th anniversary' quiz contains useful information — enabling you to out-bore anyone forcing you to watch it [this weekend.]" 

Friday, May 15, 2015

How happy is Spain?

Measuring happiness is a very subjective act but it's fascinating to see that "the 10 countries with the largest declines in average life evaluations typically suffered some combination of economic, political and social stresses.

Three of the countries (Greece, Italy and Spain) were among the four hard-hit Euro-zone countries whose post-crisis experience was analyzed in detail in the [most recent and extremely comprehensive] World Happiness Report."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ester Vivas and this year's Biocultura event

"The [Sabadell-born progressive] journalist Esther Vivas has won one of the 2015 Biocultura Journalism Awards for her blog post in Publico titled"Beans are cooked."

BioCultura, the Organic Products Fair for Responsible Consumption is an international meeting which is among the two most important of its kind to be held in Europe. Its 22nd meeting is to be held in Barcelona with the awards ceremony on the 9th of May."

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Germanwings, depression and blame" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

The recent Germanwings airline tragedy has naturally been the focus for countless media stories. Many of us in Catalonia know people who were acquainted with victims and their families but there is another personal aspect to the crash that seems to provoke strong reactions in those who have no direct connection to it.

Because most of the developed world now travels by air at least a few times a year, we are aware, at least semi-consciously, that every time we step on board a flight we are putting our lives in the hands of a small number of people - most particularly the pilots. It’s understandable and even maybe logical that we look for something or someone to blame when a plane is the cause of 150 deaths. Our instincts for justice demand an explanation. Now it has become clear that the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, made a conscious decision to commit suicide/mass-murder and used his plane as a weapon. We also know that Lubitz had suffered from a severe depressive episode while training to be a pilot in 2009 and was receiving regular medical treatment right up to the day that he plowed the plane into a French mountain. According to his former doctors this treatment was for physical problems, not psychological ones.

What we do not know though, and most probably could never know is exactly why he chose to end his own life in such a horrific way. Lubitz had reportedly told an ex-girlfriend “One day I will do something...and everyone will then know my name and remember me.” This gives an egotistical motive for his actions but does not adequately explain much else. One of the most important points that arises here, and one that a lot of media has distorted or missed altogether, is that depression does not create homicidal maniacs.

A depressed person is actually highly unlikely to take others with them to the grave and the vast majority of people with depression do not hurt anyone because suicide is the main extreme risk, not violence. In this same column in December last year I wrote that “Today too, there are increasing numbers of people who are not only acknowledging their own depression or mental illness but are speaking openly about it in public forums and in the media.” Unfortunately, Andreas Lubitz was not someone who believed that he could do anything like this and apparently went to great trouble to hide his interior struggles from his employers. If he had found the right help, he and his unwitting victims, almost all of them strangers to him, might well have lived.

The statistics show that most murder-suicides happen in domestic settings, and involve a male and his spouse. Murder-suicides involving pilots or in gun massacres are, in fact, a great deal rarer. Lubitz himself then does not fit a standard type or pattern but I would speculate that he was a man (75% of suicides are men) who was overwhelmed with the complications of a high-pressure job and was desperate and confused. In an extravagant gesture, he had just bought matching Audi’s for himself and his current girlfriend, who was pregnant.

There is a real danger that Lubitz’s violence unfairly creates a greater stigma for those who have psychiatric problems and that men in particular will be less likely to talk to mental health professionals or even family and friends. I have had a limited, short-term personal experience with depression and would hate to see a major tragedy like this one lead to a deeper code of silence about the difficulties of the human mind.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2015.]

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"The Last Coal Miners of Spain"

"Coal is on the way out in Europe, and it is dying a slow and ugly death. Its decline has been hastened by competition from the renewable-energy industry, cheaper imported coal from Russia and the United States and new air-quality regulations passed by the European Union. 

The death throes have been especially violent in Spain, where the national coal-mining industry was created by royal order in 1621 to exploit the coal basin at Villanueva del Rio y Minas in Seville. In 1990, 167 coal mines employed about 40,000 workers. Today there are roughly 40 active mines, employing fewer than 4,000 miners. The struggling industry has long been supported by state subsidies..."

Read more from source at the New York Times here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Very Brief History of Ladino Literature/ Manuel Forcano’s “Catalan Jews”

"The Sephardi Jews who settled in the Ottoman empire created a rich and varied literature in Ladino—their own dialect of Spanish written in Hebrew characters. Avner Perez traces the history of this literature and its connection to contemporary Spanish literature:

For a long time, researchers thought that literary creation in Ladino had only begun in the first third of the 18th century. Material discovered in recent years has given us a completely different picture. The intellectual elite of the exiled Jews spoke a [uniquely Jewish] dialect, but was still part of the Hispanic world and used literary Castilian in its literary creations. What set [the language of these works] apart [from standard Castilian Spanish] was its use of Hebrew characters as well as the presence of other [distinctive Ladino features].

Three pieces of classical theater in Judeo-Spanish printed in Hebrew characters, dating back to the end of the 16th century, have come down to us. They were the first such pieces printed in Hebrew characters. Two of them, Aquilana, by Bartolome de Torres Navarro (1480-1530), and Tragedia Josephina, by Micael de Carvajal (who died in 1578), are pieces of Spanish classical theater [rendered into an early form of Ladino]. The third, Ma’aseh Yosef (“Joseph’s Tale”), . . . is an original work. All this shows that the intelligentsia that descended from exiles from Spain had a rich cultural life. The channels through which they received the Spanish Renaissance culture were still open.”  [Source: Mosaic.]

Manuel Forcano launched his new book last week...

"(Barcelona, 1968; philologist, poet, translator), Els jueus catalans. La història que mai no t’han explicat. [The Catalan Jews: the history they never told you], 384 pages.

The publisher’s summary:

This book gives an overview of the history of Jews in Catalonia, from the first mentioning to the current Jewish communities. When they arrived, where they settled, how they lived, who persecuted them and for which reasons, how they survived the attacks, where and how they prayed, how they organized themselves, which figures led them, what of them has survived, what they wrote and if they did so in Hebrew or Catalan – these are some of the questions that the book answers in an informative and entertaining way. During their century-long presence in Catalonia, from the Jewish communities arose geographers, grammaticians, physicians, poets, philosophers, theologians and kabbalists of enormous prestige, even today venerated in the Jewish world, but unfortunately hardly known in Catalonia.”

Read more from source, Literary Rambles blog here.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

Spain once planned to invade Australia with an armada

[Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina]
"Documents discovered in the archives of the Spanish navy reveal that Spain planned to invade the nascent British colony in Australia in the mid-1790s.

Chris Maxworthy, vice president of the Australian Association for Maritime History (AAMH), found the documents detailing a plan of attack approved by King Carlos IV to fire “hot shot” cannons, cannons that fired heated balls that could set wooden ships and buildings on fire as well as blow large holes in them, on Port Jackson, modern-day Sydney Harbour."

Read more from the source (The History Blog) here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Easy on the eye" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Watching my son doing his geography homework the other day I was struck by how much time he was spending on selecting online images to accompany his (minimal) written work.

This activity is now a big part of modern education which I also know because as a (thankfully former) secondary school teacher of History and English I was continually struggling with students to focus on the text they were developing or learning from and to consider the pictorial aspect as secondary, or supportive. 

Students as old as twelve would regularly include a photo of say, Adolf Hitler, with the caption, “Here is a photo of Adolf Hitler,” with no other information about him, as if naming him was all that needed to be said and the real task was to cut and paste an image of him. Some older students would often just plagiarise whatever Wikipedia told them was the truth.

But why should I be surprised about all this? If you are reading this article on a train or metro have a look around right now, or next time. There will probably be more people scrolling through photos on their phones than reading something (apart from chatting by text, perhaps.)

The popularity of social media has given rise to even more use of moving or still pictures as communication. Instagram and YouTube, to name just two, have meant that sharing visuals is easy, fun and almost cost-free. Amateur photography has never been so straight-forward, thanks to camera-phones and digital technology.

Children are obviously some of the major users of their own photos as well as those of their friends. One survey of more than 2,700 young British people aged 13 to 25 found that almost one in six children sends naked photos. Equally, this so-called “sexting” phenomenon in the USA lead investigators from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to find that of the more than 130 million images containing child pornography examined since 2002, one in four were initially posted by minors themselves.

It’s natural for young people to have an interest in their bodies and other’s bodies as well. I see no big problem there but an apparent increase in obsession with body image can at least partly be explained by the strong influence of ‘supermodels’ (recently including male ones) and the visual appeal of “skin is in” singers and groups, especially from hip-hop, rap and R&B.

The power of the metrosexual male idol such as David Beckham or Ronaldo has yet to be explored in the mainstream media but this increased emphasis that male-grooming puts on the connection between the visual and the physical is abundantly clear. 

Our society simply values those with “eye candy” appeal more than anything else and that is because a glance takes a split second but conveys so much. It’s for this basic reason that film stars have long been paid absurd amounts of money compared to others in the creative industries including virtually all painters, writers and non-commercial musicians.

Looking is easy. Listening is often hit and miss.Reading needs more concentration or patience.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2015.]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Video: Naomi Klein launches her new book in Barcelona

"Si hi ha un desig democràtic per la... by vilawebtv

Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein this week launched her new book, "This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs The Climate" at the Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona (CCCB).

In this short [VilaWeb] video (with Catalan subtitles) Klein links the idea of political independence with a more independent energy policy.

She was my first journalistic interview in 2000 at the time her excellent first book "No Logo" came out and (even over the telephone) was one of the nicest people I've ever talked to for an article.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Video: "Seeking ‘Brave Journalists’ in Spain to investigate the TTIP Trade Agreement"

"The main concerns for groups that oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and North America are the lack of transparency and the way in which the agreement will affect the communities involved. 
In Madrid, Spain, the Asamblea Popular de Tres Cantos (Tres Cantos Popular Assembly), a community activist group that is well known for its participation in protests against the economic crisis, is “seeking brave journalists” as part of an appeal to the media to investigate the treaty.

In the video published on the organization's blog and various social networks, members of the assembly appear with photographs of employees from Spain's large media organizations, which have largely ignored the treaty in their coverage, and offer them a challenge:" [see English subtitled video above.]

More from Global Voices Online source article here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Homage to George Orwell: free lecture in Barcelona

Michael Shelden, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his biography of George Orwell, is holding a conference about the author on Wednesday the 18th of March at 7.30pm at the Institute of North American studies, Via Augusta 123 in Barcelona.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"320,000 Catalans receiving food aid due to rise in “poor workers” "

"The real scope of the work being done by social institutions in a matter as basic as covering the food requirements of poor families is reaching scandalous figures: over 320,000 people are currently receiving food aid in Catalonia.

The report...presented the Catalan Red Cross dignif[ies] and defend[s] the right to food. [It] highlights elements that suggest these needs are not going to diminish any time in the near future, such as the increase in “poor workers” - earning wages that do not allow them to meet their basic needs - increasingly more chronic poverty and growing inequality.

Given this scenario, social organizations are committed to working on two areas: first, the dignifying of the system when providing aid, and second, providing people with full care, that is, not only food but also support in housing, hygiene and school materials, as well as training and employability guidelines for finding work.

Last year, the four food banks in Catalonia distributed nearly 22.4 million kilos of food to a total of 260,497 people. All this while every year 262,471 tonnes of food are wasted in homes, shops and restaurants."

[Sònia Pau - Source: Catalonia Today news.]

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Why go the public way? (Part two)" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

When I was much younger my mother used to tell me that one day if I ever needed a pay raise I should just go and ask my boss for one. In the 1950's when she was at work, before having my brothers and I, this might have got some results.

The first (and last) time I tried the technique of simply asking for an increase in my pay I was unceremoniously sacked. I had been paid between 20 and 21 euros per hour over four years working as a high school teacher of three different subjects at an international school near the wealthy coastal resort town of Sitges and I had become, like my most of my colleagues, frustrated at also doing hour after hour of unpaid labour. 

Teachers in the Spanish and Catalan public education system are routinely criticised, sometimes legitimately so, but their conditions of work mean that they cannot be unfairly fired from their jobs, as I once was.

Of course, it's not only public school employees and civil servants that benefit from the protection that the state can give. A doctor or nurse with security of tenure has one less source of stress and therefore is more likely to do their job better - patients and their families may well receive good care at least partly due to the fact that they are in the hands of people who have the reassurance of employment that cannot be terminated by a short-tempered employer. 

Personally, this is just one reason why I think government health care is preferable to private and my experiences with both kinds of treatment have so far backed this up.

It's also the case that privatisation - governments selling parts of the public sector to private companies - has largely been disastrous for users of services that were formally run by government organisations. The company behind Britain's first privately run hospital recently said it planned to pull out of its contract but in an extraordinary piece of irony, blamed government budget cuts for making it's emergency department too busy...and naturally less profitable.

The railway network in the UK is a very clear example of how after privatisation prices can skyrocket, while trains are more crowded and late in arriving - regardless of which private firm is operating the line. Since assistance to job seekers in that country was palmed off to various companies, some employees have claimed that they scored “brownie points for cruelty” to the unemployed and were constantly pressured to impose 'benefit sanctions' (meaning cuts to monthly payments) on even the sick and disabled for no good reason.

In Australia, after the telephone system was sold off a large number of rural families were told that they were not as deserving as others to have telephone lines, because they were less “economically-viable” living in small towns. It is a cast-iron rule of economic 'rationalism' that people can be 'rationalised' just like stock.

Some governments are working against privatisation though. Late last year it was reported that Catalan officials are seeking legal tools that might allow them to undermine Spain's Rajoy administration in it's plan to privatise state-owned airport operator AENA, which runs El Prat airport. As well, the new national government in Greece has announced that it is halting the privatisation of both the electricity grid and Athens' port at Piraeus. 

It may be that citizens across Europe are again starting to see the merits of going the public way.

 [This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2015.]

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"First impressions of the Djemaa el Fna at night, Marrakech" - Matt Hetherington

"A bit smaller than I expected (seves me right for expecting!), but wonderful in a dark, random, melancholy, chaotic kind of way -- "The Assembly of the Dead" / "The Mosque of Nothing", as the name translates after all. Within sight (i.e. 500 m) of the massive Koutoubia minaret, on a site that was a place of execution apparently well into the 19th century -- a pagan, almost lawless place. Part cheap-thrill carnival, part nuthouse, part music festival, part anit-Islam release-valve, part gay cruise, part pickpocket paradise, part tourist trap, part country fair. And more. I found it mildly predictable after 10 minutes, slightly sad, kind of inspiring, a bit frightening, strangely instructive, otherworldly, and tiring. But Ill be back there tomorrow night."
[Matt Hetherington]


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Why go the public way? (Part one)" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

If tomorrow the government for some reason disappeared and we were all left without a system of state would it in fact be such a bad thing? 

There are people across the planet (and especially in the USA) who say that anarchy or virtually no government involvement in our lives is the best situation for the individual. 

What they don't recognise is that without important services for the public, run by the public sector all that is left is the whims of a small number of the richest to decide what the rest of us get and how much it will cost.

Since the collapse of communism as an economic alternative to capitalism in the 1990's and mainstream acceptance of market forces as the single dominant principle following the Thatcher/Reagan era, it has been fashionable to see the public sector as the biggest problem to deal with. 

A recent example proves exactly the opposite. The financial disaster that has swept across Europe since 2008 has shown us that terrible errors made in the banking sector demanded huge amounts of taxpayer's money to prop-up and compensate for excessive risk-taking by finance "experts."  

The ideologues who argued against government regulation and oversight are the very same people who have put out their hands for government bailouts for their shaky financial institutions.

What this continuing disaster clearly shows is that those making decisions in the private sector are at least as likely to stuff up as those in the public sector. 

And they are in fact even more likely to make judgements that are in their own self-interest rather than any notion of the common good because that is the nature of business. 

To survive they must make profits. In smaller operations the overriding concern is to keep the books balanced and not go into the red too often or for too long. In larger companies with shareholders their main job is to make sure that these shareholders get significant dividends - good returns on their investments. All other matters are minor when compared to the financial bottom line. 

Yes, there are some corporations and some bosses who are ethical and treat their employees well but especially in multinational companies those in ultimate control (ie. owners and shareholders) often do not even live in the same cities or even the same countries as the workers who create the revenue for them. Their greatest prioritiy is to produce more wealth for the already wealthy.

On the other hand, there is the public sector. Governments routinely fail the people they are supposed to be accountable to - not shareholders, but instead citizens, or at least voters. 

We should not confuse the incompetence or corruption in governments of every kind with incompetence or corruption in the private sector because there are some crucial differences. 

In theory, every few years electors in democratic countries have the opportunity to remove governments that let them down, and in fact we often do this. 

When the political system itself fails its citizens, such as in the two-party system that has caused many of us to question democracy itself (including in Spain, the UK and the USA) an alternative should arise before too long, provided that the populace takes a strong enough interest in how well it is governed. In Spain, Podemos is one example of this.

The 20th century had one fundamental battle of ideas that ran through it and that was the battle over how much government we would have in our lives and why. 

One extreme end of the spectrum held that complete state control of the economy was ideal but across China, Russia and Eastern Europe this has proved to be too much to bear. 

So-called free-marketeers countered that this proved that government "interference" in the supply and demand of goods and services (including the supply of labour) was mistaken - that it is somehow counter to human nature. 

In this column next month I will be arguing why it is they who are in fact mistaken.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2015.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

How Portugal beat drug addiction

Author, Johann Hari
"Nearly 15 years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe.

They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse.
So they decided to do something radically different. 

They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and take all the money they once spent on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them—to their own feelings, and to the wider society.

The most crucial step was to get them secure housing and subsidized jobs, so they had a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. In warm and welcoming clinics, addicts are taught how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma.

One group of addicts was given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other and to society, and responsible for each other's care.

An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and intraveneous drug use is down by 50 percent.

Decriminalization has been such a success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system.

The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News.

But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass—and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example."

Read more from source here.